The Sacred Fungus and the Everlasting Flame

field mushroom
Humble English field mushrooms found under the hedge at the bottom of my garden
– not sacred, but very tasty!
Last month I went to an exhibition being held at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, the University of London. It was called ‘The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination’. I was interested in seeing artefacts associated with Zoroastrianism across the centuries from its beginnings in ancient Persia. I first discovered this religion when writing about the visual environment of Late Antiquity looking at the Roman cult of Mithras and early Christian imagery. Light, fire and the light from a flame was of significance for followers of both religions during this period. Fire symbolised purity and there appeared to be a link to Persian Zoroastrianism.

lotus flower brick
Lotus-flower decoration.
Brick thought possibly to come from the sides of the staircases in the palace of Darius (522-486 BCE) at Susa, Iran.

Zoroastrianism is considered to be probably the world’s oldest monotheistic religion originating from the ancient tribes of Iran over 3500 years ago. Central to the Zoroastrian belief system is that there is only one creator God and at the heart of the religious rituals is fire. Fire, the everlasting flame, represents God’s light or God’s wisdom. There is evidence of the Zoroastrian presence in the Bible. In Christianity, the Three Wise Men from the East who bring gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus, are sometimes depicted in Persian dress, and they are described as ‘Magi’, a Persian word for a Zoroastrian priest.

It was a fascinating exhibition with at its core a small fire temple consisting of an inner sanctum and out prayer room. Rooms within rooms and a hierarchy of space is an idea repeated in many sacred spaces and I was reminded of a visit I made to the ancient Egyptian Temple of Edfu.

Temple at Edfu, Egypt
Edfu Temple, Egypt.
Plan showing a sacred hierarchy.

Of course I’m interested in cloth and the display of 18th and 19th century Parsi textiles caught my attention. The Parsi are Zoroastrians who live in modern day India. The exquisite embroidery and the beautiful designs show the variety of symbols that have been incorporated into the more recent interpretations of Zoroastrianism. This is the first time I’ve come across the notion of the ‘sacred fungus’ which according to the accompanying museum labels is a Chinese belief dating back over 4000 years.

sacred fungus
Late 19th century purple garo silk embroidery detail showing swirling water and fungus of immortality.

Readers and collectors of Chinese porcelain will be familiar with the motif, the symbol of longevity, as seen on Chinese ceramics.

smock jhabla
Detail from child’s smock (jhabla). 20th century piece. Silk with silk embroidery.

The specific fungus, is the lingzhi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum), and is commonly used in Chinese herbal medicine. This Chinese motif became incorporated into Zoroastrian culture and was embroidered onto Parsi clothing especially smocks (jhabla) worn by children to ward off evil. It is intriguing to see a motif worked in different media, but retain an essence of its original meaning.

Ganoderma lucidum - sacred fungus
The Sacred Fungus
lingzhi fungus
(Ganoderma lucidum)

Architectural Ornamentation – The Anthemion Motif

anthemion moti
Victorian illustration of the anthemion motif – lotus flower with palm leaf.

I always have my camera with me to snap attractive colour combinations or interesting patterns. Architectural and sculptural details are a great source of diverse ornamentation such as the anthemion motif.  The design is based on combining the lotus flower with palm leaves and has a long history of being reinterpreted and reworked over the centuries. The term ‘anthemion motif’ as a decorative expression appears to have sprung into use in the mid-nineteenth century with anthemion literally meaning ‘flower’ in Ancient Greek.

Ancient Egyptian lotus
Victorian drawing of Ancient Egyptian lotus flowers.

The Victorians were great organisers and cataloguers not only did they classify the wonders of the natural world – beetles and finches spring to mind, but they also applied their energy to sort and order the history of the human-made world. On the 15th December 1856, Owen Jones published the now famous Victorian reference guide to decoration – ‘The Grammar of Ornament’.

Ancient Greek motif
Victorian representation of Ancient Greek lotus-palmette design.

Looking through this beautiful, illustrated book of decorative details it is possible to follow the migration of the lotus-palmette motif from Ancient Egypt, through time to the Ancient Greeks and across the ancient seas giving rise to this Etruscan version currently displayed in the British Museum.

Etruscan sculptural detail
Etruscan carved stone showing the lotus-palmette design, the anthemion motif.

Now, in the 21st century we take for granted the near immediate global transmission of ideas, image, text and music on the Internet, yet there is something pleasing in knowing that we are part of a continuum of the interaction and exchange of designs.